How Much Integration Is Too Much in the Cloud?

If you’ve been following the data center hardware space for the past year, you might be under the impression that integrated stacks are the future of IT. After all, Oracle’s purchase of Sun Microsystems was all about integration – Oracle products up and down the data center – and HP and Cisco appear locked in a death match over who is best equipped to handle your server, storage and networking needs. As IT spending ramps back up after the economic meltdown, however, it doesn’t look like customers are buying into the promise of having just one throat to choke.

Just consider the following first-quarter results: Cisco outpaced the Ethernet-switch market in terms of revenue and market share, HP took the server-market lead from IBM, Dell had the biggest spike in server revenue (36 percent), and NetApp – the same storage vendor that has been written off as dead on countless occasions – experienced yet another impressive revenue jump (at the expense, it seems, of EMC). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such positive results for such a broad array of vendors, most of whom cross paths in more than one market (either directly or through tight alliances), don’t bode well for any vendor pulling ahead across the board.

Perhaps it’s this realization that has kept IBM out of the networking market. There have been suspicions that IBM would buy its way into the networking market, but it seems content with partnerships like its recently expanded one with Force10 Networks. Rather than try to outmuscle Cisco, HP, Juniper Networks and a growing number of smaller vendors, Big Blue is keeping itself as a server option regardless the network environment.

That’s just on the hardware side of things.

Especially as IT departments evolve their operations to embrace cloud computing, software selection could prove a very difficult decision. Yes, IBM, HP and Oracle all have some flavor of product to build and manage customers’ internal cloud infrastructures built using their hardware, but so do third parties like VMware, CA, Microsoft and, now, BMC. I’d be remiss to omit the droves of cloud startups that also want to manage cloud-computing data centers, of which some have compelling offerings.

Want a database built for the future? Oracle, IBM and Microsoft will help you out, but so will a growing number of startups pushing NoSQL or, at least, non-SQL options. The same story holds true in the hot BI/analytics market. Customers can add to their Oracle, IBM or Microsoft environments, or they can seek out vendors like Greenplum and Aster Data Systems. Even Hadoop is a real option now thanks to companies like Datameer and Pentaho, with its new Hadoop-based BI software.

It’s possible, in fact, that so many software options so disconnected from specific hardware platforms are driving Dell’s rising server sales. When software is the secret sauce, the servers might as well be as flexible as possible, open to working with whatever gear might find its way into the data center.

For me, the takeaway from all this market-watching is that vertically integrated stacks might not be as common as some hope, especially in an increasingly cloudy world where innovation reigns supreme. Vendors with multiple components will continue to push them as packages, but buying trends show customers buying what they want from whom they want, and they have more choices than ever.

Question of the week

What’s your take on single-vendor stacks in on-premise cloud environments?
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